Lily, a large, black Newfoundland, has a few dozen tutus in lots of different colors, and she’ll likely be wearing one at a Ridgewood Public Library Read to a Dog session offered three afternoons a week. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this big pooch is a huge hit: Even the shyest child walks in with a smile when greeted by Lily, who sits quietly on the rug ready to listen to a book of the young reader’s choosing. These popular children’s programs in several local libraries all offer certified therapy dogs who prove to make for the perfect reading partner. Not only is reading to a furry friend fun, but it also sharpens literacy skills, and a child’s self-confidence grows by leaps and bounds through reading aloud.
Among the libraries in the area that offer the program are Glen Rock (Paws for Reading), Waldwick (Read to a Furry Friend), Ridgewood (Read to a Dog), Mahwah (Read to a Therapy Dog) and Ramsey (Dog Buddies). Most have 10- to 15-minute individual time slots for young readers and the therapy dogs, who are always accompanied by their owners.
“Sometimes the parent or caregiver wants to come in and watch too,” says Victoria Schnure, the Read to a Dog Program coordinator at Ridgewood Public Library, which works with more than a dozen dogs for their program. “They seem to enjoy it as much as the kids.”
One of the major benefits of the program is the simple practice of reading aloud in a safe and relaxed environment.
“While reading in front of a class or a group may be stressful, animals don’t say a word. They’re non-judgmental and make the kids feel less self-conscious,” Victoria says. “It can enhance self-esteem, improve fluency and build confidence.”
At the Waldwick Public Library, Youth Services Librarian Jennifer Kelly-Maloney says their program is called Read to a Furry Friend because one of their visiting pets is actually a cat.
“Michelangelo sits in a stroller while the kids are reading. It’s fun to have a different animal in sometimes,” she says.
Jupiter, the dog who visits their library, is a Leonberger, so he’s sizable and also very popular, especially around kids who haven’t had much exposure to dogs.
“Some parents see this program as an opportunity for their kids who might be a little nervous around dogs to be with them in a safe place,” Jennifer says.
And sometimes the bond is formed quickly. Within a 10-minute reading session, she has seen children go from sitting on the far corner of the bench to inching over to the edge to sitting on the floor petting the dog.
“Jupiter is so calm and so used to being around children. It’s great to see the kids’ comfort level increase as they feel more relaxed,” she says.
Most of the programs start at around age 4, and if the child can’t read yet, they can tell the story from the pictures in a book or come with an older elementary-aged sibling who is a reader.
“The animals are incredibly patient with the kids,” Jennifer says. “They don’t judge or correct; they’re just happy for the interaction, which for kids is truly perfect.”
Registration is required for all programs. Check library websites for details.